Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stonehenge Aotearoa

Last weekend, Stacey and I took a short day trip up to the Wairarapa to see a sight that you'd hardly expect way down in the South Pacific - a Stonehenge.

Stonehenge Aotearoa consists of 24 upright pillars, connected by lintels to form a circular structure 30 metres in diameter and approximately 4 metres high. Approximately 150 members of the Phoenix Astronomical society were involved at one time or another in the building of Stonehenge Aotearoa.

A stone henge seems like a strange thing to see in New Zealand at first glance, but it's hardly surprising when you consider the origins of the country's European immigrants. Many of them hail from the U.K., and there's of course many cultural links through the Commonwealth. However, Stonehenge Aotearoa is more than just a replica of the original. This stone henge is built to the same scale as the one in Salisbury, and is similar in design, but also incorporates features that tie to Babylonian, Egyptian, Polynesian and Maori starlore. The henge is based on real astronomy and mathematics, and can be used to keep track of dates, seasons, celestial bodies, etc.

Entrance to the stone circle is via a causeway which has a line of standing stones to either side. Two large carved pillars, one to either side of the entrance to the causeway, form the Sun Gate. Seen from the centre of the Henge the Sun rises in this gateway on the morning of the spring equinox.

Near the centre of the Henge is a 5-metre-high obelisk. Half an hour to either side of local noon the obelisk casts a shadow on the analemma, a 10-metre-long stone tiled area that runs along the meridian south of the obelisk, telling you the date a

Why the Wairarapa, one might ask? Well, for one thing, light pollution is much less of a problem there. When you get too close to larger cities, the light actually makes it harder to see the stars. This is why so many of the older observatories in major cities are less effective these days for seeing all but the largest (and brightest) celestial objects. They're still good for education because they are close to the population, but if you really want to see the stars, you have to get far away from towns. I will never forget on our camping trip to the Whanganui River, looking up at the stars and seeing the milky way for the first time. Really seeing it. "Wow, so that's what it looks like!" New Zealand is a great place for stargazing.

The beginnings of a modern astronomical observatory, which would make a fine educational addition. The operators of the henge also have plans to add a roman orrery and other standing stones, as well as landscaping features, to the site.

The Phoenix Astronomical Society, builders of the stone henge, use it as an educational tool to inspire visitors to explore and experience for themselves how technologies of ancient times were used to give practical and detailed information on the seasons, time and navigation. The site owners are also looking at increasing the offerings to include a large-scale, modern observatory. Near the stone henge sits a metal frame and what looks like the beginnings of a building foundation. With any luck (and no doubt some funding from generous sponsors), one day both the ancient and modern versions will stand side-by-side. Until then, the club has plenty of smaller but very powerful telescopes which they bring out for their members and visitors to enjoy. If you are in the area during one of their evening events, you might want to "pop on over for a nosy." (one of New Zealand's least endearing phrases...but it fits.)

I close with this photo of a very spooky abandoned house, just visible from the stone henge site. It reminded me of Illinois and Halloween. But not quite enough to want to jump over the fence and go explore it inside...creepy!

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